THE GLASS CASTLE (2017)

August 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We all have our stories. The stories that make up our life. Some of us dwell on the “bad” things, while others remember only the good times. A few even romanticize the past, which could also be termed embellishment. Where exactly on this scale that Jeannette Walls’ story falls is debatable, but the facts are that her life story is the foundation for a best-selling book and now a high-profile movie.

Ms. Walls’ memoir describes her unconventional childhood with bohemian parents who cared more for freedom and independence than for feeding their kids. Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton (a ‘must-follow’ filmmaker after his powerful 2013 indie gem SHORT TERM 12) chose this as his next project, co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham, and wisely opted to work again with Brie Larson, who stars as the oldest Jeannette (from late teens through adult).

The film bounces around in time from Jeannette’s childhood in the 1960’s and 1970’s to her time as a New York gossip columnist in 1989. The timeline isn’t all that bounces, as we watch this family of six, seemingly always on the run, ricochet across America with all their belongings strapped to the top of the battered station wagon – usually on the run from creditors or following the latest dream from Rex (Woody Harrelson).

Rex is the type of guy who rants against most everything that makes up what we know as society. He can’t (or won’t) hold a job and fills his trusting kids’ heads with hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow – going as far as drawing up plans and specs for the off-the-grid fantasy home referenced in the title. Rex then spends what little money the dirt poor family has on drinking benders which cause him to become a nasty, abusive threat.

Rex’s wife Rose (Naomi Watts) is a free-spirited artist who somehow possesses even fewer parental instincts than her husband. Although she could be labeled an enabler of his abusive ways, she might actually be the more interesting of the two, even if the story (and Jeannette) focuses much more on Rex. The best scene in the movie is when mother and grown daughter share a restaurant booth, and the two worlds collide.

Of course the real story here is how Jeanette managed to rise above this less-than-desirable childhood and achieve her own form of freedom as a writer. The stark contrast between the squalor of her West Virginia shack and the million dollar apartment she later shares with her fiancé (Max Greenfield) makes this the ultimate depiction of the American Dream – pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (even when you don’t have boots).

The acting is stellar throughout. Mr. Harrelson could garner Oscar attention as he manages to capture both the dreamer and failure that was Rex. Ms. Watts maximizes her underwritten role and turns Rose into someone we believe we know and (at least partially) understand. Ms. Larson embodies both the desperation of a teenager whose environment forced her to be wise beyond her years, and the iciness of a grown-up trying so hard to leave the past behind. In just a few scenes, Robin Bartlett manages to create a memorable and horrific grandmother – one whose actions explain a great deal. The most remarkable performance of all, however, belongs to Ella Anderson (the only good thing about THE BOSS). She captures our hearts as the adolescent Jeannette – the closest thing to a parent this family had.

There are some similarities between this film and last year’s expertly crafted CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. In fact, two of the young actors (Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell) from that film also appear in THE GLASS CASTLE. The biggest difference being that Viggo Mortensen’s character could be considered to have an over-parenting approach, while Woody Harrelson’s Rex never over-did anything, except drink and dream.

The movie probably has a bit too much Hollywood gloss and sheen to adequately portray the hardships of a large family living in poverty, though the top notch acting keeps us glued to the screen. By the end, we can’t help but wonder if some of Ms. Walls’ romanticism of her father and past might be due as much to her immense writing talent as to her childhood challenges.

watch the trailer:

 


THE BOSS (2016)

April 7, 2016

the boss Greetings again from the darkness. Movie profanity and crude humor are best used selectively, and certainly not as a comedy crutch. Melissa McCarthy has not built her career on subtlety, but even for her standards, this latest comes across as a lazy effort with missed opportunities for both laughs and a message.

Ms. McCarthy re-teams with those responsible for Tammy (2014), including her husband writer/director Ben Falcone and co-writer Steve Mallory. Here she plays Michelle Darnell, an egotistical hyped-up business tycoon with no sense of integrity or humanity … constantly wearing an odd turtleneck. Somehow the filmmakers thought it a good idea to explain this lack of soul showing a young Michelle being continually “returned” to her orphanage (run by a nun played by Margo Martindale).

When Michelle’s business rival (and former business associate and former lover) Renault/Ron (Peter Dinklage) turns her into the SEC for insider trading, the correlations with Martha Stewart become impossible to ignore. There is even an acknowledgment of this by McCarthy’s character. Once released from white collar prison, Michelle hits rock bottom and ends up sleeping on her former assistant’s sofa. Kristen Bell is Claire, the assistant that Michelle once dumped on and now crashes with. Ms. Bell is mostly relegated to “straight man” to McCarthy’s string of lame punchlines.

In the spirit of exaggeration in lieu of creativity, three scenes in particular stand out: the street fight between rival scout troops, a ridiculous breast grope-off with McCarthy and Bell, and a clumsily staged sword fight between McCarthy and Dinklage. The missed opportunity to have a point about girls in business, and stooping to schmaltz with the Michelle family story are every bit as disappointing as the mostly unfunny and constant use of profanity-laced insults. Saying “suck his d***”over and over in one scene does not make it funny … in fact, it’s a bit sad.

Exacerbating the frustration is the misuse and underuse of such talents as Cecily Strong, Kristen Schaal, Tyler Labine, and Kathy Bates. Ella Anderson as Claire’s daughter does come across as a real kid, and she’s part of the best scenes in the movie. Somehow a movie that (finally) calls out the Girl Scouts on their unfair-to-girls business model, manages to disappoint on every other front.

watch the trailer:

 

 


UNFINISHED BUSINESS (2015)

March 5, 2015

unfinished business Greetings again from the darkness. Just a little bit of creativity goes a long way in comedies these days, as it seems most just care about pushing the bounds of crude and raunchy humor. The premise of this latest from director Ken Scott (Delivery Man) and writer Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) teases us with the hope that it could be more Office Space than Neighbors, but the lure of cheap, bawdy laughs proves too great.

The story begins with Vince Vaughn’s Dan Trunkman having a Jerry Maguire moment in the middle of the office after being informed by his boss Chuck (Sienna Miller) of a 5% paycut. Dan’s Napoleonic charge to the parking lot results in his new company being staffed by Tom Wilkinson (fired for being too old) and a much younger and less-experienced Dave Franco. We follow the boys from St Louis to Portland, Maine to Berlin as they chase the ever-elusive “handshake” to seal their first big deal.

Featuring a near-endless stream of potential comedic elements, the film touches on: parenting, bullying, ageism, the G8 summit and corresponding protest/riot, a Fetish Festival, the Berlin marathon, a gay bar, marital challenges, small business ownership, mentoring, the politics of business, a unisex spa, a youth hostel, excessive drugs and booze, “maids” for hire, challenges for chubby types, and an introduction to inhabited art. Some of these are underplayed, while others go way over-the-top.

Vaughn is the leader of this “three amigos” triumvirate of misfits and is on a mission to put the welfare of his employees above company profits – all the while he is skyping with his wife (the underutilized June Diane Raphael) on the due date for private school tuition. Mr. Wilkinson plays the older guy looking for new experiences (as his marriage dissolves) and Mr. Franco is the most confusing of all characters – we are unsure whether he is absurdly naïve or somewhat mentally handicapped. The upstart company is competing directly against Chuck and the old company in a very confusing transaction involving “swarf”, which is described as metal residue from giant projects like bridges and skyscrapers. Because of this, the business element is really wasted and all we get is generic-speak about spreadsheets and profit margins.

Other supporting work is provided by Britton Sear and Ella Anderson as Vaughn’s kids, James Marsden as the prospective client, and a scene-stealing Nick Frost as Marsden’s operational sidekick with a lonely/wild side. In addition to the shenanigans mentioned above, the movie periodically throws up the stop sign for laughter in an attempt to mix in some real world family emotions – parenting via Skype is a bit challenging.

As one would expect, there are many laughs throughout, although Vaughn is working hard at evolving from the “zinger” guy he has been for two decades. Unfortunately the structure of the film is simply too loose to work as anything more than a few laugh-inducing comedy set scenes. Still, there is much to be said for a film and actors that can make us laugh … even with an unfinished handshake.

watch the trailer: